Appointing an outsider as Garda Commissioner could further weaken confidence in the force, writes Eilis O’Hanlon
Eilis O’Hanlon on why we don’t need a British cop to sort out the Gardai — while Philip Ryan looks at the political fallout
THE new Garda Commissioner must be someone who’s served as a police officer, according to Newstalk’s Ivan Yates. Few would quarrel with him on that.
He wants the new boss to have a civilian deputy, too. Fair enough. There must be other structural and cultural changes as well, the former Fine Gael minister says, including an overhaul of the Department of Justice. So far, so good.
Then the clincher: it must be an outsider. Specifically, in Ivan’s opinion, “an external British cop”.
The need for an outsider certainly does seem to be the consensus amongst the commentariat. That’s what the opposition wants, together with nearly half of those polled by RTE’s Claire Byrne Live, against 29pc who wanted an Irish appointee and a further 23pc who did not know.
And whilst Denis Bradley, former vice chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, is right to say that “even foreign police chiefs have baggage”, breaking decades of tradition to bring in someone from outside the State would have many advantages. The newcomer wouldn’t be comprised by past loyalties or mistakes when coming up before the Public Accounts Committee. Bringing in an outsider would also allow the Taoiseach to say Ireland was becoming more sophisticated and modern, which might suit his temperament.
The traditional argument that an outsider can’t be in charge of the country’s intelligence agencies could also be solved by separating policing and security, as Ivan Yates has also advocated for some time. That will likely happen sooner rather than later. But an outsider wouldn’t be without problems.
The first difficulty is that the Government would surely have to smash the public sector pay ceiling in order to recruit from abroad. Police chiefs in other jurisdictions are used to much higher rates of remuneration than Noirin O’Sullivan (pictured inset) enjoyed. That’s bound to upset sections of the opposition and media who automatically equate high earnings with institutional corruption. Just watch as all those who called for O’Sullivan’s head cry foul when her successor is being paid more than the President. The second difficulty is whether it would be harder for an outsider to command the loyalty needed to enact change than someone rankand-file guards already know and trust. If the new man swept in like a conqueror, resistance would be inevitable; equally, if he was forced to mould himself in such a way to win them round, current critics of the force would simply write him off as already compromised.
The third issue is whether the right outsiders will even apply for the post. The skill set needed to repair the damage done to the reputation of An Garda Siochana is quite specific. Not all external candidates would have the right ideas about what needs to be done. The last time the job came up, there wasn’t exactly a flood of eager applications from outside the State. The last point of concern is a much trickier topic: what if, as Ivan Yates suggests it should be, the new Garda Commissioner is not only from outside Ireland, but British?
The thought of a British police officer jetting in with a big stick to put the Irish back on the right track has unfortunate historical connotations, to say the least. It could rightly cause resentment, leading in turn to a deleterious effect on morale that is already shattered among uniformed guards on the ground. Now it emerges that the current favourite to succeed O’Sullivan is indeed former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, who went from 25/1 to 2/1 in a matter of hours last week after a flurry of bets. This may indicate no more than a run of over-excited punters; a nice rumour mill never hurt bookmakers’ profits. Whatever the reason, it makes the alleged favourite not only a Brit, but a knight of the realm no less.
Another name that’s been suggested is Rob Wainwright, head of Europol. He’s a Welshman. Again, a hugely experienced figure, though never a police officer, but the message sent out by recruiting from abroad would inevitably be, in the manner of those old discriminatory jobs ads, that “no Irish need apply”. That no Irish candidate is up to the task of fixing An Garda Siochana, or that guards are so irredeemably corrupt that every candidate who comes from inside the force is tainted beyond forgiveness.
This is hugely insulting to many of those inside the force who’ve flagged up difficulties, urged improvements, investigated institutional failures, written reports. Why not have faith in one of them to spearhead the necessary reform? Even Mark Toland, formerly at the Garda Inspectorate, now on the Ombudsman Commission, who’s been heavily involved in the ongoing conversation about Garda reform, did his policing on the ground with the Metropolitan Police in London, and holds the Queen’s Medal for distinguished service; whilst, despite his personal preference for a Brit, Yates himself believes that Kathleen O’Toole, first female police commissioner in Boston, Massachusetts, who currently chairs the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, may ultimately get the nod. Another fine police officer, but not Irish. Both are, in a sense, insiders and outsiders at the same time.
There will be other names, though less well known to the public, who worked their way up through the ranks in Ireland their whole careers, whose credentials and integrity are respected by colleagues and ministers. Appointing one of them as the new Commissioner might not work. Whoever gets the job might find the obstacles too great to overcome. Two or three years down the line, it might be decided that Noirin O’Sullivan’s replacement was no better at stemming the loss of public confidence in the Guards than she was. But they already have the local knowledge, which means reform won’t need to wait on a newcomer learning the ropes. The least that those who have battled against the tide deserve for being right all along is to be allowed to try. Not to do so would erode confidence in An Garda Siochana further. There’s already a popular perception out there, whipped up by populist opposition politicians, and courted by the media, that An Garda Siochana is a rogue force. Why give these people any more ammunition by playing their game? The damage has been largely self-inflicted, but there’s a snobbishness at work, too. The professional Irish middle classes don’t regard guards as equals. They’re certainly not encouraging their sons and daughters to don the uniform. Secretly they doubt that the Garda are clever or honest enough to reform themselves. There’s also a section of opinion in Ireland that doesn’t want the guards to put their own house in order, because that would mean they were wrong to damn the force as beyond reform. They want to ditch the “brand” altogether, just as the Patten Commission disbanded the Royal Ulster Constabulary and established the Police Service of Northern Ireland in its place.
The need for “Patten-style reform” is the superficially appealing refrain; but the circumstances in which the PSNI supplanted the RUC were very different. This was a police force which had colluded in many murders, and which did not command the support of at least half the population. Its very emblems were objectionable to many as symbols of oppression.
As Patten wrote in his report: “(The police) have been identified by one section of the population, not primarily as upholders of the law but as defenders of the State, and the nature of the State itself has remained the central issue of political argument.” The nature of the State is not similarly at issue in Ireland, no matter how much subversives would like it to be.
By deliberately blurring the clear distinction between the two situations, many critics of the force want Irish citizens to start seeing their own police force as similarly hostile. They seek an overhaul of policing as part of a wider agenda to recast the State itself as hostile and inimical to the people’s interests. They shouldn’t be given that victory. Irish policing can fix its own problems. Giving it the chance to do so would show ordinary guards that the country has not given them up as a lost cause.
‘The professional Irish middle classes don’t regard guards as equals’